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Your Brain on Porn Series - Part 2
Submitted by Gary Wilson and... on Wed, 08/24/2011 - 17:33
Here’s the “limbic system” (primitive brain or mammal brain). It’s highlighted in orange and covered by the larger cerebral cortex. It’s the part of the brain we have in common with all mammals—including that monkey we just saw.
Obviously, we have only a single brain, but certain parts have specific jobs. This part (limbic) is ancient, a 100 million years old, or older. Its job is all about survival. I could spend an hour talking about all its functions, but what’s important to us is that it governs emotions, such as fear, joy, anger, etc. It is also the seat of most of our desires and drives, including hunger, mate selection and sexual urges.
You see, sexual desire or libido does not arise from your genitals. It arises here. This is where you get horny. This is also where you experience the Coolidge Effect. And this is where all addictions originate, including porn addiction.
Here’s a picture comparing the dark-colored limbic “brains” of various animals, with the cerebral cortex on the outside. Think of the cerebral cortex as the rational, logical brain—like Spock on “Star Trek.” It’s not emotional; it’s the planning, thinking part of our brain, which comes up with the clever ideas.
The cerebral cortex also understands the consequences of our actions. The limbic system does not. Think of car engines. All have the same basic design. So do all limbic systems, whether they belong to a rat, cat, dog…or us. Whether it’s hunger, mothering, mating, sexual desire, or even addiction, the same brain chemicals and structures do the same jobs in all mammals.
You see, scientists aren’t studying rat brains to figure out how to help rats. They’re studying them to help us without our addictions and erections. And it’s useful because limbic systems are so similar in all mammals.
It’s important to remember that the chemical balance in our limbic system shapes how we see the world. It shapes our mood. If our limbic system is out of balance, so is our decision-making.
At its most basic, our limbic system is all about “avoiding pain” and “repeating pleasure.” You see, survival depends upon the avoidance of pain—both physical and emotional. And upon the repetition of pleasure. “Hot stove bad; ice cream good; Mommy good; snake bad; porn good.” You get the idea.
Here’s the centerpiece of the limbic system. It’s called the reward circuit. Sometimes you’ll hear the term reward center. You’re looking at a slice down the middle of the brain. The circuit is a bit bigger than pictured here, and a bit more complex, but this image will do. You can see that the circuit actually goes from the limbic system up to the rational brain.
The reward circuit is where you experience all desire and most pleasure, such as sex and orgasm. It’s also where you decide what you don’t like and what you do like. That’s why it’s so important. It’s small, but, in essence, it’s running the show. You never make a decision without consulting your reward circuit.
If you’re addicted to anything, here’s where it happened. This circuitry is activated whenever we engage in anything that furthers our survival—or very important—the survival of our genes.
The rule is this: to get motivated, you must register a “reward” in your brain. This circuit activates feelings of pleasure and also gives you the motivation to seek out pleasure. It drives you to eat, engage in sex, take risks and bond. It’s where you fall in love and where you fall in love with your children (and your parents). It’s also activated when your team wins, or you feel like an “alpha” male, or you’re bungee jumping.
The more exciting the experience, the more this reward circuitry is activated. But keep in mind that it’s also activated by simple pleasures, such as watching a beautiful sunset, taking a walk in the woods or even a girlfriend’s smile.
Chemicals turn on and off certain parts of the brain. The main chemical, or neurotransmitter, that turns on the reward circuit is dopamine. The reward circuit is the engine, and dopamine is the gas. You get a bigger blast of dopamine for high-calorie foods than you do for low-calorie foods. You crave them more because they register as more rewarding. This is why you choose chocolate cake over Brussels sprouts. It’s the “give me high calories” program.
Think about sugar. A “sugar buzz” comes from dopamine acting on the reward circuitry. It’s not the sugar in your blood acting on the brain. Orgasm is the biggest blast of dopamine, not including drugs, such as meth or cocaine.
Dopamine has lots of nicknames: the craving neurochemical, the “I’ve got to have it—no matter what!” neurochemical. It’s behind all motivation to do anything…because the reward circuitry is behind all motivation. You’re not ice cream, or even sex with that porn star. You’re actually craving more stimulation of your reward circuitry. You don’t want to win the lotto; you want to activate your reward circuitry.
The bigger the surge of dopamine in response to something, the more you want it. Why don’t those hedge-fund billionaires retire? They certainly don’t need any more money. They want more dopamine in the form of winning at the stock-market game.
Here’s the normal pattern of dopamine release. It looks something like a roller coaster, because in biology, “What goes up must come down.” It could be food, sex, even water when you’re thirsty. So, let’s say you’re hungry. Dopamine starts rising. Then you think about a burger, and it rises more. When the burger is sizzling, dopamine’s going way up. It peaks right about at your first bite. As you continue eating it drops off. Finally, it drops back down to normal levels, and you’re full.
This same graph could also represent masturbating or having sex. The peak would be right about at orgasm. However, I want to point out that the experience of orgasm itself is probably due to other neurochemicals called opioids, not dopamine. Dopamine drives you toward orgasm, but the feelings of orgasm arise from something else.
This graph could also represent exposure to anything new or novel, because dopamine loves novelty: a new car, a just-released movie, the latest gadget. We’re all hooked on dopamine. Dopamine can spike when you order dessert, even if you haven’t finished what’s on your plate. Dessert is a new food.
So, dopamine rising in your reward circuitry can override what’s called satiety, completeness or fullness—regardless of what your rational brain thinks about overeating, or even watching porn.
As with everything new, the thrill fades as dopamine levels drop.
Now, let’s go back to the Coolidge Effect. Dopamine is what is behind the Coolidge Effect. In this image, the yellow lines indicate dopamine levels. The reward circuit squirts less dopamine with each copulation. Eventually the male can’t copulate with that female anymore because there’s not enough dopamine. Dopamine is behind libido.
Drop in female #2. The male gets another squirt of dopamine, his libido surges, and he goes back to work.
This is what’s behind the Coolidge Effect, and it’s also why you click to new videos while you’re watching porn. You do it to get another big squirt of dopamine by watching something novel.
Another nickname for dopamine is the “molecule of addiction.” Changes in your brain cause changes in dopamine that lead to addiction. Cocaine, alcohol, nicotine all feel different, but they all flood the reward circuitry with dopamine. All addictive chemicals and activities raise dopamine. It’s what makes them (potentially) addictive. Of course, you need continued use of the addictive substance or activity to cause the changes that lead to addiction.
Dopamine is released in response to expectations, rather than actual levels of pleasure. It’s the drive to “get it.” It’s the craving. But as I’ve mentioned, the actual pleasure of eating or orgasm is probably opioids, morphine-like chemicals being released in the brain. Dopamine is wanting something. Opioids are liking something.
Addictions are basically chasing after dopamine. So addiction equates with wanting more, but liking it less.
Speaking of wanting and the reward circuitry, here’s a rat with a wire attached to an electrode in the rat’s reward circuit. Whenever the rat’s paw hits that lever, it sends enough electricity to stimulate its reward circuitry. Scientists observed that the rat will just keep hitting the lever—thousands of times an hour—until it drops. It won’t stop to eat, sleep, have sex, or even take care of the pups. It’ll give up everything just to press that lever. As we know, this behavior is not unlike some serious drug addicts.
In another experiment, scientists placed and electric grid that delivers painful shocks between the rat and the lever. Rats would endure those shocks to get to the lever. But if you but the grid between rats and food, they will not cross it. They would rather starve.
This next experiment also shows the power of dopamine. If you block a rat’s response to dopamine, it has absolutely no motivation. They won’t walk over to the food dish, and will starve to death. But they still like food. If you drop food into their mouths, they eat it and show little rat smiles. They just have no motivation to go get it. They lie around. They won’t have sex either. The male rats show no signs of libido.
Key point: You need the right level of dopamine to function normally. It does lots of important jobs. Dopamine gives you a positive outlook, good attitude, keeps you motivated. Incidentally, many psychological problems involve dopamine imbalance—including addictions.